Calgary council approves plan to revamp downtown with $200M initial investment

Calgary council has approved a plan, and an initial investment of $200 million, to revamp the struggling downtown core.  (Jim Brown/CBC - image credit)
Calgary council has approved a plan, and an initial investment of $200 million, to revamp the struggling downtown core. (Jim Brown/CBC - image credit)

With approximately 32 per cent of downtown office space sitting vacant, Calgary city council has approved a revitalization plan for the core that involves an initial investment of $200 million.

Council voted 12-1 in favour of the plan on Monday, with only Coun. Jeromy Farkas opposed. The vote was 10-3 in favour of the $200-million investment, with Farkas as well as Coun. Sean Chu and Coun. Joe Magliocca opposed.

It's believed a total of $1 billion will be needed to fund the plan over the next decade, some of which the city hopes will come from other levels of government.

The downtown strategy is a guiding document that will attempt to retool the core from being a business district that is often empty at night to one with more amenities, more pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure, better connections to green space, more housing and more life beyond the work week.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the vote is a "big step" toward creating a downtown community that moves beyond a business district to becoming a vibrant, 24/7 centre of the city.

"This means taking bold action and making intentional investments in public spaces, supporting vibrant neighbourhoods, and ensuring we continue to create a downtown that people want to live and work in," the mayor said.

The first round of money will come from reserves, savings and a federal infrastructure fund.

"Fixing downtown is a citywide issue. Our downtown is central to Calgary's economic recovery, and we are facing a long road, there is no looking back," Thom Mahler, manager of urban strategy for the city, told council on Monday.

"Our biggest risk for the downtown is to do nothing as there is no forecast that shows those property values will ever come back on their own without significant and sustained action."

Hollowing out of the core has removed $16 billion in value from the city's tax rolls since 2015. That means businesses outside the core have to make up the shortfall of taxes. Council has repeatedly reached into reserves to subsidize those businesses facing steep tax increases.

The city plan will include:

  • $45 million for incentives for existing office space to convert to residential, redevelop or look at "adaptive use."

  • $5 million to offset contributions to the Plus-15 fund for residential developments.

  • $55 million for a "downtown vibrancy capital program."

  • $5 million for programming events.

  • $10 million for a "dedicated downtown team" to oversee implementation.

  • $80 million for the previously announced Arts Commons transformation.

Murray Sigler, interim CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said in a release that the approval will help Calgary compete with other global cities.

"To attract and retain top talent, we must invest in the capital and social infrastructure that supports community well-being, including childcare, parks, public transit, the arts and the charitable sector," he said.

"Calgary's greater downtown plan builds on the work that is already being done, and this significant investment is needed to address one of our city's greatest challenges."

Council heard from a steady stream of pre-selected Calgarians touting the importance of the plan.

Scott Hutcheson, the executive chair and co-founder of Aspen Properties, which has significant holdings in downtown Calgary, said action is needed.

"Councillors, chances are you're not going to like what I have to say next: Calgary's a no-fly zone for institutional capital," he said of the challenges facing the downtown.

"The pension funds, and the large real estate investors in that community that has typically owned the assets in the downtown, is neither interested in investing in our city core with new equity, nor is new debt available to our market."

Hutcheson said estimates of a 20-year turnaround for downtown real estate can't be allowed to become reality.

The city will ask other levels of government for funding to help transform the core.

Details of the plan can be found on the city's website.